Pop Culture Politics
“Remember Who the Real Enemy Is”

There’s a popular feeling in the air that America has become decadent. Contrasting Harry Potter to the Hunger Games shows what a difference a decade can make.

Published on: December 14, 2013
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  • WRM

    Very thoughtful, Peter.

    • Jim__L

      On a related note, a couple more pieces of (unsolicited) encouragement…

      – Just because an article provokes controversy on the boards doesn’t mean we don’t like it. 🙂 As far as I can tell, commenters here are a lot like Star Trek fans / critics… nitpicking, complaining, and kibbitzing are some of the most common ways we express our love and fascination. (Sometimes they’re all we know. Pity us.)

      – Just because an article provokes absolutely no commentary at all doesn’t mean we don’t like it. Some articles (like the ones on Southeast Asia, say), are fascinating and informative, we just have no idea how to make them controversial. This is probably good for everyone involved.

  • MarkE

    My read of Fukuyama is that he is shocked that Americans aren’t more interested in making centrally government more effective and efficient. As you have pointed out Americans are wary of central politicians that they regard as power hungry and corrupt (also dishonest). Who would want to make them more efficient and effective? Mostly themselves. Maybe that’s why DHS bought several billion rounds of hollow tip bullets and 2000 armored personal carriers last year.

  • rheddles2

    And what are we to make of the fact that Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys had virtually no government interference just as all this government as a growth industry nonsense was beginning? A lack of juvenile awareness of the NRA and WPA? And what of the Indian in the Cupboard? Let’s all get small and escape from the 80’s reality. And then there’s Enid Blyton…

    • Nick Bidler

      A quick trip to wikipedia shows those book series have been going since the 1930s. I don’t think something that has been rooted in the New Deal will ever mention government action in anything other than helpful terms.

    • Corlyss

      I agree. I don’t know how bring Harry Potter and The Hobbit into a serious discussion of politics gives readers greater insight. Esp. if they have studiously avoided all the referenced “icons” of popular culture, like I have. I don’t Tolkein, or Lewis, or Rowling. I may be fascinated by the mythopoeia exhibited by Tolkein and Lewis, I may read about their lives and their cultural milleu, but I won’t read the books themselves. Reality is far too interesting and perplexing to indulge.

      • Fred

        Spoken like a true philistine. There is a reason literature has been one of the most important human endeavors since the age of the Epic of Gilgamesh. We can often learn much more about “reality” from one great novel or poem than we can from a hundred sociological or historical treatises.

        • Corlyss

          So I’m told, both the philistine part and the “great lessons to be learned from literature” part. I’ll leave it to you. I have too little time left and I’m too undisciplined to fool with it now. When I was younger, I refused to read people who got paid by the word.

      • Andrew Allison

        Ah, Corlyss my friend, you are exhibiting signs of a closed mind [grin]. The reason that Tolkein and Lewis are worth reading, and Hunger Games is relevant is that they present the never-ending battle between good and evil in a relatively accessible way.

        • Corlyss

          Andrew, I don’t dispute anything you and Fred have claimed for fiction. I read it in college when I was forced to do so. I just am not interested. Fiction is the steamed carrots and broccoli of the written word as far as I’m concerned. De gustibus non disputandum est.

          • Andrew Allison

            Corlyss my friend, I fear that you missed the point. The difference between right and wrong is taught by allegory or, much more painfully, by experience.

          • Corlyss

            And I think you kinda missed my point. I didn’t recommend that everyone stop reading fiction. I’m perfectly content for others to read it for whatever value they can get out of it, including allegory and metaphor. I’m a big fan of both allegory and metaphor. Just don’t make ME read fiction; I already know the difference between right and wrong, and I can recognize evil at a country mile no matter how well dressed it is.

          • Andrew Allison

            As I wrote, you missed the point. The great unwashed don’t understand the difference between right and wrong, and need allegory in order to have any hope of doing so.

          • Corlyss

            And again you missed the point. I didn’t say everyone should quit reading fiction, now did I? And with this, I’m going to stop repeating myself on this issue. 😉

          • Jim__L

            So Andrew, is arrogance and dismissiveness towards the majority of the population right or wrong?

          • Andrew Allison

            If it were such, it would be wrong. But as is evidenced on a daily basis, it’s just the way things are.

  • Corlyss

    “America has become decadent in the sense that Jacques Barzun outlines in his masterwork From Dawn to Decadence: a stalled society that can see no clear possibilities for advancement or improvement.”

    You guys are spending way too much time analyzing the symptoms and not enough time thinking about the disease. The disease is a spending cancer that is eating the patient alive caring for and rescuing the non-productive. There will never be enough money in the treasury to accommodate all the demands placed on it by the spenders. The treatment for the disease is to stop the endless obsession with sympathy for the same non-productive, i.e., stop wasting our resources and our futures on them. I’ve observed occasionally here that this is a battle to the death of one ideology or the other, just as the civil war was a battle to the death of one ideology over the other. As there could be no more compromises between slavery as a way of life and freedom as a way of life, there can be no compromises between the safety-netters and the savers because there is no more money left.

    • concerndcitizen

      Amen. And beyond the money, there is the deeper issue of moral character and human culture that has been degraded by constant exposure to Marxism at all levels of society.

    • Jim__L

      The problem is not the non-productive per se, the problem is those who make little effort to live up to their potential productivity.

      For that, there is nothing that can no government program that can replace the spur of need or hunger.

      • Andrew Allison

        Provide incentives? Workfare, etc?

        • gearbox123

          Hunger is very incentivizing.

        • Jim__L

          Too easily gamed.

  • jery

    “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

    • gearbox123

      As P. J. O’Rourke pointed out in “Parliament of Whores”, the complaints against King George in the Declaration of Independence still sound reasonable “because so many of them can be leveled against the current government of the United States.”

      And that was in 1992.

      • Jim__L

        I wonder, what would university political life would be like if PJ’s books were required reading in more poli sci courses?

        • Andrew Allison

          You are assuming that they would be capable of understanding what they were reading (assuming, of course that they’d already taken the remedial reading course which, as I recall, at last count 40% of college entrants require).

        • Kavanna

          How about assigning Harry Potter?

  • The Hunger Games world is Agenda 21, not taken to some absurd caricature of itself, but as envisioned, often openly, by those who have concocted it. Learn it. Know it. Live it.

  • Boritz

    What percentage of Hunger Games readers and movie-goers root for Katniss and the rebels to win in the story but in real life support the wrong side. 80-90 percent or only 50-60 percent?

  • Ettanin

    The romantic idea that Evil is held back by small acts of love and kindness by everyday people holds no water in the real world. In the real world, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. For example, you see a homeless person denied healthcare at the hospital. In outrage, you support a law requiring hospitals to see all patients regardless of their ability to pay. This leads to drastically increased healthcare costs for all patients because they now have to subsidize those who cannot pay (families using the ER as their healthcare). So now, less patients are actually able to pay. In turn, this leads to the existence of health insurance because now ordinary people can’t pay for their de facto subsidizing of the poor. However, now health insurance money floods the health market just like giving universal cash to everyone at an auction. The price of everything rises exorbitantly. Now, even the price of health insurance rises beyond affordability. People get angry, demand action and then…voila…you have Obamacare…fascist, corrupt, incompetent government control ruling everyone’s life-and-death healthcare decisions. This doesn’t just happen in healthcare. It happens everywhere in every industry that truly matters to life and death. It happened to money in 1913 when the Democrats centralized the control of U.S. currency (a far more important coup than the current healthcare fiasco btw)…all for the sake of “helping” the common man of course. So, no, everyday people don’t prevent Evil. Everyday people are enablers of Evil…not because they’re evil or evil-intentioned, but because they desperately seek a savior from the relentlessly imperfect world we live in and repeatedly turn to silver-tongued liars for the solution. A vote for Obamacare simply reflects a powerful human desire to somehow outlaw Death, Poverty and Suffering…as are all the legislative goals of the Left. The Left is psychological, not political. They go to great lengths to avoid looking at the real world with sober eyes. It’s actually a very innocent motivation when you think about it. And as history shows us, over and over again, when you legislate Utopia, societal collapse is the only thing that breaks the system. Power doesn’t stop Evil. Everyday people don’t stop Evil either because they more than likely enabled it in the first place. Only societal collapse stops Evil because it wipes the slate clean. The Utopian urge is a fever in the masses. It can’t be cured, reasoned with or appeased. You either defeat it utterly or It simply runs its course with the destruction of the current society. Then, it ends and starts over again when a new prosperous society rises from the ashes of the old. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. We’re almost there.

    • mnemos

      You missed the mark entirely. In your example, the small act of kindness by an ordinary person would be to take care of the homeless person, not to look for a savior in government. That is how the small act would have held back evil – by not enabling the monstrous snowballing that leads us to the desire for saviors and despots.

  • Terenc Blakely

    The author goes into contortions trying to portray repubs and the military just as decadent as the dems. Not that the repubs are competent but they are light years away from the despotism that is the dems. Plus the US military is the most competent and ethical gov agency nowadays as scary at that thought is.

  • Kevin Johnson

    “In The Hobbit, Tolkien has one of his characters say that some
    believe “it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is
    not what I have found. I’ve found it is the small everyday deeds of
    ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness, and

    Actually that’s a small bit of the immense amount of stuffing Jackson put into the bloated behemoth that is the first Hobbit movie, not a Tolkien quote.

    • Peter Blair

      Right you are! That’s for catching that—fixed. Either way, though, it comports very well with Tolkien’s moral sense.

      • Jim__L

        Tolkien’s original line is this: “The road must be trod, but it will be
        very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it.
        This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong.
        Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world:
        small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are

        Read “The Scouring of the Shire” again, too (at the end of Return of the King), to get a better feel for Tolkien’s moral sense. I think you might have to recalibrate a little bit afterwards.

  • Jim__L

    Big Government types are in a trap of their own making. They have led too many Americans to expect that the Federal government is the only entity capable of dealing with all our problems, giving them the idea that they can simply pay their taxes and vote for “programs”, and the problems people see will go away.

    This is a disaster in two ways.

    One, it puts expectations on the Federal government that it can simply never meet. We’ve seen with ObamaCare (not to mention Libya, Iraq, Britain’s National Health Service scandals, etc) that the government simply isn’t very good at doing good. They never will be good at doing good, because to keep their jobs they don’t have to be good at doing good; they just have to be good at winning elections (or playing the Civil Service organization). As we’ve seen in Obama’s case (or if you prefer, Bush’s), being able to win an election doesn’t mean you’re qualified. The pageantry of Hunger Games reflects the sheer uselessness of media-saturated political life.

    Two, this Federal solution expectation relieves individuals of taking responsibility for themselves, and doing the good that only they, personally, can do in this world. This isn’t just a matter of people being independent for their own sake; if government is seen as the only legitimate problem-solver, that also means people don’t have the means or will to help others. You can circumvent “vetocracy” easily by keeping your time and money and dedicating it constructively to whatever general charities or specific needy cases you choose. Taking a personal interest in the well-being of the people around you, learning what they really need (both financially and in terms of personality) in a way that a bureaucrat handing out checks or even an overworked caseworker simply can’t accomplish, is essential to effective action. This is the longing reflected in the line that Peter Jackson gave to Gandalf.

    Tolkien’s original line is this: “The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere”

    Government needs to stop usurping the responsibility for charity, and it needs to resist the temptation to arrogate to itself the authority it would need to do even the poor job that is the best it can do.

    • Andrew Allison

      History tells us that Governments, democratic or otherwise, never resist the temptation to arrogate to authority to themselves.

    • Kavanna

      Of course. Government claims to solve many of the problems only it creates.

  • gearbox123

    A very well-thought-out analysis.

    It’s worth noting that George Lucas’ last three “Star Wars” movies (though wincingly unwatchable as entertainment) explored some of this same territory: The descent of democracy into tyranny, for only the best and noblest reasons of course. At one point Natalie Portman utters the line “So this is how democracy dies – to thunderous applause.”

    Unfortunately, I think that line, and the point, went over most of the audiences’ heads. Everyone always sees themselves on the side of the angels, no one wants to believe they’re the problem instead of the solution. Democrats think they’re saving us from evil Republicans, Republicans think they’re saving us from idiot Democrats. The truth, unfortunately, is that there is no one to save us from ourselves.

  • ronchris

    If I controlled the youth advertising budget of the GOP in 2015-16, I’d be making commercials/website banner ads showing Hillary Clinton as a mash-up of Dolores Umbridge and Emperor Palpatine.
    She embodies the worst traits of both those fictional characters.

  • Terri Castles

    I am perplexed as to why you would place the Tea Party in the same category as Occupy Wall Street. Maybe I missed something.

    • Kavanna

      Yes. The Tea Party is a more sophisticated and far better informed movement. Occupy Wall Street is an ignorant tantrum.

  • Tom Servo

    “At the very end of the third book in the series, after the rebels have emerged victorious and Coin put in power, Coin orders Katniss to kill the defeated tyrant in a public, state-sponsored execution. Instead, disgusted by the bombings, she kills the leader of the rebel party.”

    Funny, this is the same ending as in the original “DEATH RACE 2000” (by the great Roger Corman).

  • Anna

    I this it’s a bit short-sighted to assume Harry Potter
    and The Hunger Games represent the same kind of reflection of public sentiments
    toward government and power when they were written in different countries and
    by authors of different nationalities. There is a reason why we study
    literature within its national contexts. While globalization is increasingly
    narrowing the gap between the local and the international political sphere, the
    local still dominates the way we conceptualize and symbolize these forces.

    Having lived in the UK for well over a year now, I can say that Harry Potter
    represents some of the more frequent characterisations I have heard of
    government here–the bumbling inefficiency, perceived absence in important
    matters, tendency to make the wrong decisions. Now of course this is just my
    perception, from a very specific sub-sample of the population and from reading newspapers.
    But the general sentiment appears to be an
    exasperated distrust of the government and a notion that Britain succeeds in
    spite of, not because of it. This is also, to a lesser degree, reflected in Tolkien’s work, where the individual
    actions of well-intentioned people are celebrated. This is quite at odds with
    the relationship of most Americans to their government–certainly still wary
    and exasperated, but also more personally engaged in the political process
    (probably due to stronger party affiliation) and more convinced that policy
    decisions have the power to help or hurt situations in their daily life. If the Brits succeed
    or fail in spite of the government, the Americans do so because of it. And the
    political climate of The Hunger Games–a nation at the mercy of a cruel
    government that is responsible for widespread suffering and unequal
    distribution of wealth–is one way in which the US government could be
    characterised. Given these clear national tendencies within the works, I don’t
    think you can say that the work of a British author (or at least, this specific
    one) can tell us something about the political sentiments of Americans toward
    [their or any?] government in the same way the work of an American author can.
    Rather, we can conclude a lot about the sentiments of Brits toward government
    ten or so years ago, and a lot about the sentiments of Americans towards
    government now. And whether these represent their characterisations of any
    government, or just their own, is unclear as well. (I’m inclined to argue the
    former, especially given growing anti-American sentiments in response to their
    foreign policy).

    Beyond this, your
    argument is also quite one-dimensional, reducing the books’ characterisations
    as evidence for the general populace’s attitude towards political authority
    without addressing the intersectional factors that compose this attitude. To
    me, both Harry Potter and The Hunger Games were quite progressive in their
    portrayal of class struggle, though again this was bounded by national
    contexts. In Britain, wealth and social class are still a lot more determined
    by birth, hence the notion of “bloodedness” as an indicator of social
    status and the controversy within the wizarding world about who should have
    access to the privileges–such as an “elite” Hogwarts education–of
    wizarding society. The Hunger Games is basically a fantasy about Marxist
    revolution in the US, with the oppressed working class (District 13) rising up
    against a corrupt oligarchic state in which wealth is controlled by a select
    few who in turn control everything else. I’ve also always secretly wondered is
    the name “The Capital”–along with all its decadence–is a play on
    capitalism as a divisive and oppressive force. Commercialism and competition–two
    driving forces behind capitalism–certainly play a large role in the books, for
    example in the way that violence is posited as entertainment and districts are thought to gain glory if their tributes win. The
    term tribute, too–the idea that human being is an object to be
    paid–reinforces this notion.

    You could also interpret the birth issue in Harry Potter as a symbol for racial
    discrimination. Or the female heroine of The Hunger Games defeating the
    male-dominated capital, and the male rebel leader, as a feminist overthrow of
    patriarchal oppression. And I could go on. I think to a) reduce the books to
    patterns of how society as a whole relates to government without examining the
    underlying power structures and b) to not complicate the notions of both
    society (Who gets to be a member of society? Who doesn’t? Whose voice is
    represented?) and government (Just elected officials? Or institutions and power
    structures? How about societal organization that spans both society and
    government, such as economic systems?) is an over-simplification you can’t
    afford to make when analysing the impact of these books and considering what
    they reflect.

    • JDanaH

      “The Hunger Games is basically a fantasy about Marxist revolution in the US…”

      It would be more accurate to say that it’s a fantasy about an individualist, pro-capitalist revolution against a tyrannical centralized state. The rebels were fighting for the right to be left alone and free, not for the redistribution of wealth nor a dictatorship of the proletariat.

      As an aside, Instapundit is fond of pointing out the similarities of the Hunger Games’ society to today’s — in which the capital prospers while the rest of the country languishes in recession. (Look up the statistics on per capita income, unemployment, and real estate prices in the D.C. area relative to elsewhere.)

  • Robert Walter Mueller III

    Sorry Peter, have to disagree with you. It’s a convenient comparison, but you’re leaving out one pivotal factor – these books are read by teens. Teens are generally more interested in gaining freedom from their parents than the government – most 13-16 year olds don’t even realize the government is maleable. Teens, sitting between both adults and children in age, popularize these movies – hence huge turnouts. You made most of your argument based on the content in the books, but left out the connection between people and these books (you spent one sentence in the final paragraph stating that people are more cynical without any contextual backup).

    Secondly, even if you were to simply compare the movie plot lines with the current political atmosphere, you’d still be wrong. I’m a libertarian and disagree with Obama as much as the next guy, but most of the issues within the US are based on frustrated citizens struggling to pay their bills while watching an ever-increasing wealth gap. The basis of this wealth gap isn’t Obama’s politics, because he doesn’t do anything. The basis of the wealth gap is on the subsidization of companies in high-barrier to entry industries, as well as the lack of personal accountability allowed within the public finance world.

    Your movie analysis is a dead comparison, but wealth disparity is definitely a topic that needs to be discussed and fixed. I for one hope the Republican party starts to realize the danger imposed by simply denying that there is a problem, and instead starts to come further into the middle to allow for continued civility. Giving up one apple to a stranger is better than a stranger pushing you off a cliff.

    • Jim__L

      The tricky part here is that a lot of the US’s geo-economic strength seems to be based on our dominance in those high-barrier-to-entry business. I want to see Glass-Steagall re-imposed, Sherman anti-trust vigorously exercised, and IP considerably loosened. Several questions come to mind though — what kind of effect would looser IP (for Hollywood, say) have on our trade deficits? What kind of effect would breaking up Citigroup have on US financial clout? What would have happened to the global software industry if Microsoft (or today, Google) were broken up?

      I’m not sure that one could be completely cynical about this, and say it’s all about the kind of campaign contributions these guys make. (If it is, I’d start recommending some freelance Second Amendment remedies). I would like to see some analysis of the wrecking ball’s effects before breaking it out and swinging it around.

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